Wednesday, 24 August 2016

What Lessons Can Hong Kong Learn from the success of Team GB at Rio 2016?

What Lessons Can Hong Kong Learn from the success of Team GB at Rio 2016?

(Image provided by Sportsroad)

As most readers of this blog will know, I grew up in England. As a young child in the late 1960s and early 1970s I instinctively knew that sporting success was part of GBs heritage and culture, it was ingrained and just acknowledged. With, what in retrospect seems like arrogance, we believed we had ‘invented’ most sports and had a right to be good at them. Well, we had just won the Football World Cup! I grew up in a sporting household, my father had been a professional cricketer and physical education teacher. Together with my older brother, I spent every waking hour, when not at school, playing as much sport as possible - cricket, football, swimming, table tennis, snooker, you name it we played it. In my formative years, school sport was important too. We played against other schools after hours during the week and at weekends we often played for the school in the morning and a local club team in the afternoon. Millions of boys were just like me – we all wanted to be the next Bobby Moore, Bobby Charlton or in my brother’s case Geoffrey Boycott.

And then towards the end of the 1970s and into the 1980s there was a change of culture. The liberal-minded people in charge of education decided that competition was bad, because not everyone was capable of winning! Winning was suddenly bad apparently. This change of policy, coupled to teachers refusing to take extra-curricular activities because of a dispute with Margaret Thatcher, led to a steep and immensely damaging decline in GB sport. In a short space of time, we went from world beaters to a nation of heroic failures, personified perfectly by ski-jumper ‘Eddie the Eagle’ in 1988 (if you haven’t seen the film by the way, watch it; it’s brilliant). By that time I had followed my father’s footsteps into a career in sport and for someone who loved sport and reveled in its many intrinsic benefits, the decline was humiliating and depressing.

The slide was brought into sharp focus in 1996 when at the Atlanta Olympics GB finished 36th with a mere 9 medals in total and only 1 gold. That was won by rowers Pinsent and Redgrave whose success was based solely on supreme talent, enormous physical prowess and extreme personal sacrifice. It owed absolutely nothing to the sporting establishment. Sport received very little political support or funding.

Wind the clock forward 20 years to the Rio Olympics. Team GB finished second in the medals table (ahead of China), smashed their targets and became the first ever country to increase the number of medals won having hosted the previous Games. Of the 366 athletes that went to the Rio Games for Team GB, 129 of them - just over 35% - returned with a medal, including every member of the 15-strong track cycling team. Of 31 sports, GB finished on the podium in 19 - a strike rate of just over 61%. In terms of golds, GB was way ahead of the pack, finishing with at least one in 15 sports, more than any other country, even the United States.

This is a remarkable turn-around and has left many people around the world scratching their heads wondering – ‘how have they done it’?

Success in sport is not rocket science. I believe it only needs two things; cultural significance and resources.

Dealing with resources first, it is absolutely clear that the catalyst for the profound improvement and success of GB sport has been the introduction of the National Lottery and the use of a set percentage of funds raised specifically for sport. This has gone into; building world class facilities, the hosting of major events (Commonwealth games 2002 and 2014 and the Olympic Games 2012), funding for Governing Bodies and to pay the training and competition expenses of individual athletes. National Sports Associations have been able to employ expert coaches and to fund the sports science support services that are so vital to athlete progression.

No sport demonstrates this better than cycling. GB dominated track cycling in Rio, winning six of 10 disciplines and collecting 11 medals in total, nine more than the Dutch and Germans in joint second. GB success in cycling transcends the Olympics too as demonstrated by Chris Froome’s success in the Tour de France. Their amazing success has been built on a strategy of ‘marginal gains’ where basically nothing, and I mean nothing (google it and you will see what I mean), has been left to chance. There is no doubt in my mind that with the right resources their success can be copied and replicated. However it is impossible to do so without money.

What hasn’t attracted as much attention as the impact of the National Lottery is that there has also been more investment in school sport in the UK. Specialist Sports Colleges have been established and importantly, links have been made between schools and local sports clubs. Pathways to NSA talent identification programmes have therefore been facilitated.    

In terms of cultural significance, what is interesting is that the success of Team GB i.e. elite sport has been achieved without a corresponding increase in mass participation. Grass roots participation in sport has actually declined in many sports (not cycling) in the UK, even after the Olympic Games in 2012. It just goes to show that there is no direct correlation between the absolute number of people playing sport at the base and the level of success at the top. The sports development continuum is not necessarily a pyramid, but more of a ladder. The secret is identifying those with talent (at a very early age), exposing them to the right (sporting) environment and providing them with the resources (time and expert advice) they need to climb from one rung to the next. No stone unturned, nil compromise.

So why is the cultural significance of sport so important? Well for me if the decision-makers are going to take sport seriously they need to be confident that the majority of the population of a country appreciate that sport is important, even if most people have no aspiration to be world-class themselves. The majority of people in the UK know they will never win the lottery or Olympic Gold but they are happy to buy a ticket in the knowledge that the proceeds will go to ‘good causes’. A country needs politicians who understand the value of sport and are prepared to develop a coherent strategy and divert resources to make it happen. Success in sport needs to be part of a nation’s DNA like it used to be in the UK and like, thankfully it is once again. Success breeds success.

In terms of Hong Kong, I just don’t see that sport has reached that level of cultural significance (yet). It’s just not that important to people, to society and therefore to politicians. As a result sport does not receive the same level of recognition, priority or the all-important resources. Of course it would not be true to say that no resources or thought go into sport in Hong Kong. We have the HKSI for elite athletes, we have some new facilities (such as the Velodrome) and more in the pipeline hopefully (such as a new Stadium). We have a new Sports Commissioner who understands sport, which is a step in the right direction. We have the SF & OC that overseas NSA activities. We have the HK Schools Sports Federation etc. We have the HK Jockey Club that administers horseracing and football betting and puts money into sport. In recent years the HKFA has benefitted from additional funding as a result of a more strategic approach and better governance, so it would be churlish for me to say that there is no sporting culture at all. 

The reality is though that these are only strands and facets of a sporting infrastructure. Are they enough and are they joined up as part of a coherent sports strategy? Having witnessed firsthand the Renaissance of sport in the UK, I would have to say ‘categorically no’. In my opinion, there are a number of things that Hong Kong needs to do:

  1. The first thing is to decide whether, and to what extent, sport is important. If it’s not, that’s fine; let’s focus on something else, like commerce or tourism. But if the answer is ‘yes’, then we need to do it properly, rather than the fragmented and half-hearted way in which it is being done at the moment.
  2. If I were the Sports Commissioner I would go to the UK right now and borrow the blueprint.
  3.  We then need to establish a Governmental Agency or NGO with specific responsibility for all sport across Hong Kong (like UK Sport).
  4.  As a priority we must also prepare a Hong Kong Sports Strategy defining the priorities, objectives and targets. For example do we see sport as something for everyone for health and societal benefit or do we want to be successful on a world stage? The plan would be different depending on the agreed policy objectives. The plan should cover facilities, participation, events, structures, systems and resources.
  5. All of the sporting stakeholders in Hong Kong must buy-into the strategy in a coordinated way, particularly the Education system and NSAs.
  6. If they do so, the strategy should find ways in which they can be given the resources to implement the plan. Most NSAs in Hong Kong are significantly under-funded.
  7. The Jockey Club gives a lot of money to sport which is great (and I would be the first to admit that football has benefitted from this) but I think it is sometimes allocated reactively rather than strategically. Maybe now is the time to set up a fund specifically for sports activities, programmes and facilities, linked of course to the new sports strategy.
  8. We cannot under-estimate the importance of schools. The Education system must be at the heart of any new sports strategy. The HKSI does a great job but often by the time the athletes go there full time, it’s too late. Specialist sports schools are key, like the Singapore Sports School that helped deliver its first gold medal in swimming in Rio. If aspiring athletes are to reach the 10,000 hours benchmark by the time they are 18 they must find a way to combine intensive sports training with academic work. This is not happening now.
Hong Kong was one of the 119 countries not to win any medals at Rio 2016, so we are not alone. However many of the countries that did win medals have a smaller populations than Hong Kong and less ability to provide the necessary resources. There should be no excuses if we want to improve. It took twenty years in the UK for the transformation to happen. In all probability it would take longer here because we are starting from a lower base. The point is that if we don’t make a start now, it will never happen. If Hong Kong is to enjoy any sustained success in sport, we must all join forces to develop a sporting culture and to devote more resources to sport.

Rio is not Hong Kong’s ‘Atlanta’ because we have different cultural expectations, but we must find a catalyst from somewhere.

Mark Sutcliffe, CEO August 2016 

Wednesday, 17 August 2016

Hong Kong Premier League 2016/17

Hong Kong Premier League 2016/17

Back in May when the final whistles were blown in the English Premier League and the three divisions of the English Football League, everyone knew immediately which teams would be promoted and relegated and which teams would therefore be playing in which competitions in 2016/17. Of course they also knew WHERE all of these teams would be playing.

Here in Hong Kong it’s taken until August (the month when the season is due to start) to finalise teams and venues. This timescale is equally frustrating for the HKFA, clubs, fans, media, indeed all stakeholders. I’m afraid it’s a reflection of where professional football in Hong Kong is right now; it’s still very unsophisticated. “Wasn’t Project Phoenix supposed to solve the problems”, I hear you say.

Well let’s look at that objectively. In relation to professional football, Project Phoenix recommended a number of things including; the creation of a new Premier League, implementing a Club Licensing system etc. When the recommendations were formulated it was recognized that extra funding would be required. However for understandable reasons, no additional money was actually allocated by the Government to go directly to clubs. As a result the HKFA had the resources to administer changes to the professional tier but not to strengthen the clubs themselves. So the new Hong Kong Premier League was established and I believe there have been some positive changes including:
·         New brand and title sponsorship
·         Club licencing provides a framework for professionalization of clubs and improves our position in AFC competitions
·         Significantly increased prize money (x 4)
·         Solidarity fund for poorer clubs
·         Creation of player support unit
·         Match-manipulation monitoring has reduced the potential for fixing games
·         The Government has increased the funding to District Teams (x 3)

These are all steps in the right direction and have had some benefit. For example we are now ranked higher by the AFC and have gained entry into the AFC CL play-offs. However I can fully understand why some people say that these changes are merely cosmetic and why clubs criticize the HKFA for not doing enough to help, especially financially. The fact is that HKFA is doing what it can with the resources available. It costs us around HK$5m per annum to run the Premier League. More or less everything is done for the clubs. The HKFA takes care of all match day operations, provides referees, spends HK$1m+ on marketing and promotion, organizes and administers the broadcasting arrangements, negotiates the use of venues etc etc. 

You might well ask whether the HKFA should really be subsidizing professional clubs in this way? I think in the short term, the answer is yes. A strong professional football league is fundamental to the overall success of football. It encourages young people to start playing and of course it ensures a player pathway into the HK Representative Team. The importance of a strong representative team speaks for itself. 

I would much prefer the League to be run as an independent entity (as in many other countries) and indeed this was one of the recommendations of Project Phoenix. A couple of years ago we tried to make this happen and established a working party which was supposed to be led by the clubs to look at structures, resources, timescale etc. The outcome was very disappointing. There was huge apathy from the clubs once they knew what was involved. So we are a long way off having an independent league and so in the meantime it will continue to be run by the HKFA. It is a challenging task, made more difficult for a number of reasons some of which I will elaborate on below.

Continuity and strength of Clubs: As I said at the start of this blog it is very difficult to plan effectively if you don’t know which teams will exist from one season to the next. Many clubs in Hong Kong operate very precariously and are totally dependent on ‘bosses’ and/or sponsors. Most people know that we target 12 teams for the PL. At one stage this summer it looked like we could go down from 9 to 8. We would have been criticized for this and so a number of initiatives were put in place to increase the number.

So for example we reacted positively to Guangzhou R and F’s request to play in our league. We also encouraged the HK Football Club to consider promotion. We also looked to re-establish the former team ‘Saplings’. As it happens all of these initiatives came to fruition and we have ended up with 11 teams.

This has resulted in criticism too. Take the case of R and F for example. On the face of it, this is no different to Swansea City from Wales playing in the EPL or Wellington Phoenix from New Zealand playing in the A League. Of course the political situation is very different here and I am sure this has stoked some of the negativity. We have done our best to make the league more sustainable, interesting and competitive by allowing them to play, subject to meeting certain criteria. They will have to sign local players, be based in Hong Kong and pay a significant entry fee (which will be filtered down to the other clubs). I believe they will want to be competitive and that it will not merely be a development squad. There are two ways to look at this situation and I would accept there are pros and cons. Time will tell whether it was the right decision or not.

Similarly in the case of the HK Football Club some people have criticized us for allowing an ‘amateur’ team to participate. Firstly they did finish second in Division 1 last season so on sporting merit they have a case. All players will be given a ‘professional’ player’s contract and although I accept that very little money will be payed to players, there is no ‘minimum wage’ in the Club Licence or League Rules. They will have to abide by all of the Club Licence requirements and comply with all other rules and regulations. Whether they will be competitive also remains to be seen. I have watched a couple of their pre-season friendlies and they are looking quite solid.

The financial resilience of some of the professional clubs in Hong Kong is so weak that throughout June and July we could not confirm which teams would play in 2016/17. Even the Champions, Eastern have had well-publicised financial problems in the closed season. Faced with these uncertainties, difficult decisions have had to be made. Not everyone will agree with those decisions but they have been based on what we believe is the best for HK Football. Like I said, it would be nice to know at the end of every season which clubs will be playing next season. Club sustainability needs to be addressed for that to happen.

Which brings me onto the next major issue.

Venues: Another perennial issue is the availability, quality and choice of venue. There are so many issues here, it is difficult to know where to start. With the exception of the HK Stadium and Mong Kok all of the other venues cater for community use as well as being the home to a professional football team. The wear and tear inevitably results in the need for maintenance closures. This season it is particularly bad with a number of stadia being closed for extended periods of time. It is impossible to plan a regular schedule under these circumstances. The HK Stadium itself will not be available for December and from mid-March onwards. This will put huge pressure on the playing surface at Mong Kok. If it lasts the season in reasonable condition I will be amazed. Many venues don’t have floodlights, which precludes mid-week fixtures and some still restrict cheering activities, like banging drums. Until there is a strategy for addressing these deficiencies, there will always be problems. These manifest themselves in many ways, not least the spectator numbers. Watching football is a habit and fans need to know where their team will be playing rather than the continual move from venue to venue.

Club Licence: The CL is an important and accepted part of football. The HKPL Licence is based on the AFC CL Club Licence criteria but with certain allowances made in recognition that some of our clubs are starting from a low base. I would contend that there is nothing in the HKPL Licence that a good professional football club shouldn’t already be doing. It is based on common sense principles. Some clubs in Hong Kong take it seriously (especially the ones that aspire to play in AFC Competitions). The sad truth is that other clubs pay lip service to it and do the minimum to pass - whilst others try and ignore it altogether. The clubs that fall into the latter category clearly feel that we need them more than they need the Licence! In other words; would we really kick them out of the League if they fail? Some will fail this year and I will be recommending sanctions to the Board. It is unlikely that they will be kicked out though because this would be counter-productive. It is disappointing that some clubs view the Licence as something to avoid rather than viewing it as a tool for self-improvement.   

There are other issues and problems that impact negatively on professional football in Hong Kong such as a lack of club-based marketing and fan engagement, the legacy of integrity issues, poor treatment of players, lack of respect for officials; I could go on.

If I am brutally honest I would say that Project Phoenix and some of the changes we have tried to introduce have brought into focus the long term structural and cultural problems that have existed for some time, rather than solved them. Some issues have been addressed but others haven’t. We simply haven’t had the resources to make sufficient interventions in professional football to make a difference. I think it’s time to face facts and understand that the ‘evolutionary’ approach (which is all that could be achieved under Project Phoenix) needs to be replaced by more of a ‘revolutionary’ approach. You only have to look at what is being done across the border to see that it is possible to do this if there is support from all stakeholders including the Government, the commercial/corporate sector, Clubs, fans, the media and yes, the Football Association too. This will mean finding ways to give the clubs more money but make it conditional on taking the Club Licence more seriously and actively delivering on youth development, coaching standards etc. Money has made a difference to us in other areas such as Referee Development, Women’s Football, Futsal, Grassroots Football etc and it could make a difference to professional football too. The public sector must be a more proactive catalyst for commercial investment. I am coming to the view that nothing will change significantly unless there are wholesale, radical changes.

This summer has been a frustrating one for those of us who want professional football in Hong Kong to be competitive, sustainable and attractive. We at the HKFA have done our best to plan and prepare for 2016/17. It’s good that we have 11 teams and that each team will play 20 matches in the League and take part in 3 cup competitions. I really hope that it will be an exciting season with good quality football and that the gap between the top and bottom clubs is not too great. Now that the season is upon us, I sincerely wish that everyone can focus on matters on the pitch. I would urge fans to get behind their teams and the League.

Whilst my ever-enthusiastic and conscientious colleagues here at the HKFA will be doing their best to organize and promote the HKPL, I will be putting together a more ambitious and ‘revolutionary’ plan for the future of professional football in Hong Kong for future seasons. I already have lots of ideas, but these need to be formulated into a coherent plan. I hope to be able to share a discussion document on this subject before Christmas.

Mark Sutcliffe, CEO, August 2016


2016-17 香港超級聯賽

與外國其他頂級聯賽不同,香港超級聯賽僅於8月才可確定參賽隊伍及比賽場地,倉促的時間難免令本會、廣大球迷、傳媒以及一眾持分者感到無奈。我認為這亦反映出本地聯賽的現況 仍然不成熟。我聽到你們的疑問「鳳凰計劃不是應可解決所有問題嗎?」。


  • 全新品牌及冠名贊助
  • 球會牌照制度提供球會職業化的框架,亦改善我們於亞洲賽事中的排名
  • 獎金顯著提升(4)
  • 為較小型的球會籌備資金
  • 成立球員支援小組
  • 監管比賽操縱問題,減少了賽事作假的可能性
  • 政府增加了對區隊的資金援助 (3)



我個人較希望聯賽可以由一家獨立機構營運 (如其他國家一樣),而這正正是鳳凰計劃內的提議之一。兩年前,我們曾嘗試成立一個由眾球會所組成的工作小組,以管理架構、資源及時間表等,但因球會的冷淡導致結果令人失望。因此,我們仍與成立獨立機構營運聯賽的模式有一段距離,在這段期間,聯賽仍會由足總營運。這是一個挑戰,其中包括以下原因:


這結果受到不少批評,以廣州富力的情況為例,表面上與威爾斯球隊史雲斯於英超作賽或紐西蘭球隊威靈頓鳳凰於澳職作賽一樣,但這裡的政治環境截然不同,導致得到不少負面聲音。我們要求廣州富力必須簽入多位本地球員以及繳付一筆參賽費用 (可讓其他球會受惠)以令聯賽的競爭性及可觀性不受影響。我亦相信他們會有一定競爭力。凡事均有兩面,我認為事情往往會有優點及缺點,時間會證明這決定正確與否。